Excerpted from The Bass Book, here’s a brief history of the Fender Precision bass – an instrument that revolutionized rock ‘n roll.
Fullerton, California, 1951
Leo Fender is alone in the workshop, bathed in a pool of light from his lamp. He looks up, squints at the clock on the wall, and turns back to the job in front of him, fiddling yet again with the neck of a new model he and his team are finishing. Little do they know that it will become Fender’s most revolutionary product. Leo carefully screws the latest maple neck on to the scarred ash body. The Fender Precision bass is almost ready.
The emerging sound of rock ’n roll would have been impossible had Leo not toiled on that night and many other occasions. Fender’s idea for a bass guitar was almost unprecedented – not to say downright shocking. Of course, bass is as old as music itself. It began long ago, probably when people first started to sing together and noticed that some of them had lower voices, which made a good foundation to underpin and strengthen their music.
There’s something unique about providing the bass, about adding a bass line to the music. It’s a shivers-up-the-spine moment when you get it right. It’s subversive, too. A bass line can completely shift the mood and intention of a piece, altering the framework and taking the music somewhere else. It’s what Paul McCartney tells us is “the power the bass player has within the band. Not vengeful power, just that you can actually control it”.
Picture the upright bass player in America [in the late ’40s]. All around him the rhythm section is getting louder: the drum kit is growing in size to project the music’s pulse, while guitarists have become accustomed to using the amplified electric guitars that first appeared in the previous decade. Our bass player enjoys no such technology. He’s saddled with the unwieldy acoustic upright bass and is still having trouble being heard over the musical noise generated by the rest of his band.
Against this background, the Fender Electric Instrument Co introduced a solidbody electric bass guitar toward the end of 1951. Nobody really knew what to make of the strange hybrid made by this small company. It looked like a long-necked version of Fender’s Telecaster solidbody electric guitar, launched the previous year. The new Fender Precision Bass had four strings on a long neck and was tuned like an upright bass in fourths to E-A-D-G, an octave below the lower four strings of a guitar. Those who saw this new instrument gazed at a peculiar, unfamiliar thing.
Leo Fender’s idea for a bass guitar was certainly radical, but the idea of an amplified bass was somewhat longer in the tooth. Thirty years earlier, in the 20s, Lloyd Loar, an engineer at the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Co in Kalamazoo, Michigan, experimented with a slimmed-down electric upright bass. In the 30s, Rickenbacker in California marketed a stick-shaped electric upright bass, as did Regal of Chicago, and Vega of Boston. None of these efforts were commercially successful; nor were they helped by the poor quality of amplification available at the time. Makers seemed to know that bass players wanted a louder instrument but had trouble finding a suitable way of helping them.
It turns out that the idea of a fretted bass wasn’t new, either. Ancient multi-string fretted bass instruments such as the bass lute and theorbo date back to the 1600s, but at the beginning of the 20th century, Gibson made a small number of the Mando Bass, a four-string fretted instrument that continued in the line for twenty years or so from the early 1910s. A late-20s Gibson catalogue shows a musician dressed in a dinner suit and playing the acoustic Mando Bass with a pick. He holds the instrument guitar-style across his body thanks to the support of a metal rod, which protrudes from the lower side of the instrument and rests on the floor. The Mando Bass had a two-foot wide pear-shape body, a round soundhole, four strings tuned E-A-D-G, a forty-two-inch scale-length (the average for an upright bass), and seventeen frets. What they didn’t tell the budding bassist of the 20s was that this $150 instrument did little to project its sound through the band and into the audience. Consequently, it was not a great success during its surprisingly long life – Leo Fender knew about a local band who used a Mando Bass in the 40s.
Fender Electric Instrument Company
Clarence Leonidas Fender was a practical man, proud of his work. He was born in 1909 in a barn near the Anaheim–Fullerton border in the Los Angeles area. His parents ran a “truck farm”, growing vegetables and fruit for market, including the area’s famous oranges. Leo’s father had come to California from Illinois, and Leo’s ancestors were American right back to his great-great-great-great grandfather, who emigrated from Auerbach in Germany to the United States. As a young man, Leo worked as an accountant, but he loved electronics and amateur radio, and soon he began building amplifiers and PA systems for public events – sports gatherings, dances, and so on – in the Orange County area.
In the late 30s, Leo opened a radio and record store, Fender Radio Service, in Fullerton. He sold electrical gear, records, musical instruments, PA systems, and sheet music, as well as offering a repair service. In February of 1946, Leo set up Fender Manufacturing, and at the end of 1947 he renamed it the Fender Electric Instrument Co.
Leo [made and sold] lap-steel guitars and amps, and soon production work moved into two steel buildings on nearby Pomona Avenue. It was here that he survived near-crippling cashflow problems to come up with the Fender Esquire/Broadcaster/Telecaster six-string solidbody electric guitar and the Fender Precision Bass. The company added a good new bass amplifier to partner the instrument, the Bassman model.
The Fender Precision bass was launched during the closing months of 1951, starting in October, although it wasn’t officially shown to the instruments trade until the July 1952 NAMM show, held by the National Association of Music Merchants at the Hotel New Yorker in New York City. The new bass shared much of its construction with the Fender solidbody electric guitar, which during 1951 got its final name: Telecaster. The Precision had a twenty-fret maple neck bolted to a slab of ash for the body, which was painted in a pale yellow colour. The narrow headstock had four big-key Kluson tuners. The body had a black plastic pickguard and finger-rest plus a four-pole single-coil pickup. There was a chromed metal plate with a volume and tone control, plus a chromed cover each for the pickup and (with built-in rubber mute underneath) the bridge. The bridge had two saddles, each carrying two strings. The strings passed over the bridge and through the body, anchored at the rear. The body had two cutaways, the first Fender guitar with such a design.
Function over form
The new bass had an austere simplicity and was geared to easy construction, which was typical of the early products from Fender. Leo always chose function over looks. “I had so many years of experience with work on radios and electronic gear,” he said, “and my main interest was in the utility aspects of an item – that was the main thing. Appearance came next. That gets turned around sometimes.” Leo also knew that simplicity in design can make repairs and servicing easier. His years in the radio store had taught him a lot. “The design of everything we did was intended to be easy to build and easy to repair,” he recalled. “When I was in the repair business, dealing with other men’s problems, I could see the shortcomings in a design, completely disregarding the need for service. If a thing is easy to service, it is easy to build.”
All the principal design elements were shown in Leo Fender’s patent for “the ornamental design” of the Precision Bass. He applied for it in November 1952 and it was issued on March 24 1953. The electric bass guitar had arrived … and nobody took much notice. Today, many years after Leo Fender’s death, it’s impossible to know exactly what his motivation was for introducing the Precision. But we can make some informed guesses. Did he, for example, expect to sell the instrument to upright bass players or to guitarists? Probably both, of course. Anyone with the necessary $199.50 might well have been Leo’s attitude. (In today’s money, that list price would be equivalent to about $1,800.)
Most people who were there at the time say that Leo first determined a need for such an instrument mainly by talking to the musicians who came and went at the Fullerton workshops and who played in and around town. They included Jack Kelleher, a local bassist who played in big-bands and western swing groups, but the guitarists realized that playing more than one instrument increased their employment opportunities – and those who’d tried the big upright bass generally found it hard to play.
Leo relied heavily on these local players in his firm’s early years. They tried out the prototypes and testbed instruments that Fender supplied and gave their opinions on this pickup arrangement or that control scheme. Leo remembered: “About twenty-five percent of every day was spent with visiting musicians, trying to figure out what would suit their needs best.”
Maybe the name of the new Fender bass was a come-on to guitarists and others who found the un-fretted neck of the upright bass too imprecise. Don Randall was general manager of Radio & Television Equipment Co, Fender’s distributor in the early 50s, and he soon became a key person in the growing Fender operation. He recalled that the Precision name was in fact a typical concoction of Leo Fender’s technically-oriented mind. Randall would go on to name all the Fender products, but he didn’t name the Precision. “Leo and I had a discussion about the new bass,” he explained, “and he’s telling me how precise it was, how you could fret it right down to a hundredth of an inch. Now, who puts their finger a hundredth of an inch this way or that on a bass string? But he was so possessed with the fact that this was the first time that the fret layout on a bass was so precise. He said to me you know, it’s so precise we ought to call it the precision bass. Well, why not? So it became the Fender Precision Bass.”
“The guitar players picked it up, of course,” Randall remembered many years later, “and many of them played bass and guitar, but most of the guys in the travelling bands were playing the big bass. They had to have a moving-van to take everything where they were going! The Fender was a godsend to them. It wasn’t so cumbersome as the big acoustic bass.”
Fender’s press info continued: “A finger style of playing is used rather than the old style of slapping and jerking the strings, which was necessary with the older style instrument to obtain sufficient volume. This new instrument when used with the Bassman amplifier produces considerably more volume than a conventional [double] bass, and with a great deal less effort on the part of the player. Bass players will find that they are less tired after a night of playing the Fender Precision Bass than with the older type.”
The tuning of the Fender bass, E-A-D-G, was the same as the upright bass and an octave below the lower four strings of the guitar. These familiarities were designed to attract both sets of players. A question we can’t now ask Leo is why he chose a scale-length of thirty-four inches for his Precision. The scale length of a guitar is the distance from nut to bridge saddle. It determines the sounding length of the strings and their relative tension, tone, and playability. That thirty-four-inch scale of Fender’s new electric bass guitar was around nine inches longer than that of most conventional six-string guitars, a requirement derived from the much deeper pitch of the instrument, and about eight inches shorter than the average scale-length of an upright bass.
The Precision’s body design was new for Fender, with an extra cutaway on the upper body compared to the company’s existing Telecaster shape. This new style would inspire the body outline of Fender’s Stratocaster guitar, launched a few years later. Fullerton recalled a practical reason for the cutaway, even if for most players it was obvious that it provided easier access to the higher frets. “For the Precision Bass we pretty much followed the Telecaster shape,” Fullerton said. “The reason for the extra cutaway was the strap – because on the upper side you don’t need a cutaway anyhow. This longer neck on the bass and the heavier keys made it overbalanced, and so by extending the top horn you put the suspension for the location of the strap holder more in the center, to offset the balance. All these things were designed into it for a particular reason: we wouldn’t just say oh, I’m gonna put a horn on it. But in those days nothing was available, for instance there were no bass keys available. We used to take great big keys that fit on those hollow basses and cut them down to make them fit.”
Excerpted from The Bass Book, written by Tony Bacon and Barry Moorhouse. Printed with permission of the Backbeat Books. Buy it online at the Backwing store.
Tony Bacon lives in Bristol, England and writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. Barry Moorhouse founded the Bass Centre, a specialist bass-guitar retail and distribution operation, in London in 1894. The Bass Book presents the definitive story of the electric bass guitar, beginning when Leo Fender introduced the world to his new Precision Bass in 1951.
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